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Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality


Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded1,2. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups. To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms3,4. Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers5,6,7,8. We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world: (1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu; (2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu; (3) Yasawa, Fiji; (4) Lovu, Fiji; (5) Pesqueiro, Brazil; (6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius; (7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia; and (8) Hadzaland, Tanzania. Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship. Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists. Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.

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Figure 1: The random allocation game.
Figure 2: Allocations to distant co-religionists increase as a function of moralistic gods’ punishment.
Figure 3: Log odds ratios with 95% confidence interval plots of the influence of key variables on the odds that a coin goes into the cup for the distant co-religionist.

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We thank everyone who participated in the study and our local assistants without whom this project would not have been possible. We acknowledge funding from a research grant, “The Emergence of Prosocial Religions” from the John Templeton Foundation, and the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC), funded by a generous partnership grant (895–2011–1009) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Q.D.A. is grateful for the support provided by a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, E.C. thanks the British Academy for Fellowship support, J.H. thanks the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research for support, A.N. thanks the James McKeen Cattell Foundation for sabbatical support, and B.G.P. thanks L. Loveridge and J. McCutcheon. We thank A. Baimel, A. Barnett, J. Bulbulia, N. Chan, M. Collard, T. Lai, J. Lanman, B. Milner, M. Muthukrishna, C. Placek, E. Slingerland, R. Sosis, H. Whitehouse and C. Xu.

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Authors and Affiliations



J.H., A.N. and B.G.P. conceived the study, prepared protocols, managed project communication and initiated manuscript preparation. C.A., Q.D.A., E.C., R.A.M., A.K.W., B.G.P. and D.X. collected data. B.G.P. conducted all analyses, made all graphs, Tables and illustrations. All authors participated in developing and refining protocols, experimental design and in manuscript preparation.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Benjamin Grant Purzycki or Joseph Henrich.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Map of the eight field site locations.

Map from R package ‘maps’ (2015). R version by Ray Brownrigg. R package version 3.0.0-2 (

Extended Data Figure 2 Proportion of sample listing moral and virtue items for moralistic and local gods’ dislikes and likes by site.

a, b, We asked participants to freely list up to five things that moralistic and local gods dislike and like. These free-list items were subsequently coded by two independent coders using 12 categories (see Supplementary Information section S4.1.1 for the methods). Items listed first are the most salient items in participants’ models of gods’ concerns. Error bars have a total breadth of 10%. Note that Indo-Fijians (Lovu) did not answer questions about local gods.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 3 Mean moralistic and local gods’ knowledge and punishment scales by site.

a, b, Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals of the mean. Lovu (Indo-Fijians) did not answer questions about local gods, and Yasawans’ (native Fijians) attributions of ancestor spirits’ knowledge had a mean and standard deviation of zero. Note that local gods often punish for non-moralistic reasons. See Supplementary Information sections S4.1 and S4.2 for methods and analyses.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 4 Plot of differences between size of actual allocations and allocations from binomially distributed sample of the same size.

The halfway mark of 15 indicates the predicted mean of all cups. Bars above zero on the y axis indicate higher frequencies of allocations than predicted, and those lower indicate fewer individuals than predicted. Note the cluster of extremely lower-than-predicted values immediately after the cut-off point of 15.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 5 Per cent of sample by allocation amount to distant cup in local co-religionist (grey) and self games (black) as compared to binomial distribution (white).

For both games, allocations lean towards the left of a theoretically ideal binomial distribution suggesting that overall, participants biased allocations towards themselves (n = 591) and local co-religionists (n = 589) at the expense of geographically distant co-religionists.

Source data

Extended Data Table 1 Models accounting for allocations to anonymous distant co-religionists with punishment–knowledge aggregate scales

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Purzycki, B., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q. et al. Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. Nature 530, 327–330 (2016).

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